- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 18, 2000

The Montgomery County (Md.) Council yesterday approved a budget of $2.62 billion, almost 9 percent more than what they agreed to spend last year and without a hint of a proposed 5 percent county income tax cut.
"I am disappointed that in a year that funds are flowing like they never have, we have not returned [more] to taxpayers," said council member Marilyn Praisner, a Democrat who represents the northeastern part of the county and was one of three council advocates for the tax cut.
Agreeing with her were council members Nancy Dacek, an upcounty Republican, and Isiah Leggett, an at-large Democrat, who proposed the tax cut. The measure died on a 2-1 vote in committee.
A broad income tax relief plan would have faced dubious prospects had it come to a vote of the full council.
Two members yesterday said they would prefer that any new tax relief be directed to the working poor when the issue resurfaces next month as the council adjusts the budget before next fiscal year begins July 1.
The council's newest member Howard Denis, Bethesda-Chevy Chase Republican said he would have voted for the tax cut approved last year, which was projected to return about $58 to the average taxpayer. But he said he found it harder to support an additional cut that would allow taxpayers to keep about half that amount.
"We're still playing catch-up, especially with schools," which make up more than half the county budget, Mr. Denis said.
So concerned was the council over reports of underachievement in the public school system regarded as one of the best in the state and nation that they approved almost $12 million in funds for reading, math and all-day kindergarten initiatives.
A catalyst was the fact that just over a third of Montgomery County public school students managed to earn a 60 percent or better score needed to pass Algebra 1 final exams in January, the first time a uniform standard was applied.
County Executive Douglas M. Duncan said he was pleased by most of the council's budget decisions, including cutting the cost of passes for the county "Ride-On" bus system by 44 percent. That move is projected to cost the county about $1.3 million.
Although the council and executive have found common ground on mass transit issues, roads remain a flash point between them.
"I am disappointed they failed to fully fund the Montrose Parkway, a road critical to relieving traffic congestion along Rockville Pike," Mr. Duncan said in a statement.
The $6 million that the council committed to the Montrose Parkway project was part of a $1.7 billion six-year capital improvement budget. But it is less than a tenth of the $65 million needed to build the road planned between Interstate 270 and Route 355.
The administration contends the parkway also is needed to ensure the success of the planned, publicly funded Montgomery County Conference Center.
Although the council contends $6 million will keep parkway planning and design work on schedule, Duncan spokesman David Weaver said it creates a fear that the project will never be finished.
"It's been more than a decade since we've built a new road in Montgomery County," Mr. Weaver said, adding that the council's failure to commit more money to the project ensures that it "will be redebated each year."
The booming national economy also cost the county a bit: The council's operating budget includes a $250,000 "inflationary" adjustment for contractors.
Council budget action also would:
Fund 11 new elementary school gymnasiums, four new recreation centers and two new fire stations in Germantown.
Increase spending on subsidized housing by 61 percent.
Set aside $33 million more for conservation of farm, park and environmentally sensitive land.
Spend $1.3 million to rebuild a trestle over Rock Creek Park, thereby connecting Bethesda and Silver Spring portions of the Georgetown Branch hiker-biker trail.

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